The strange world of Chateau Duffy

This depiction of Chateau Duffy in chalk graced the men’s toilets at Ian McKellan’s pub last summer. (No, I did not take the photo myself…) [Credit: Chris Austin]

First of all, it’s not a chateau. We’re aware of that, but it does confuse people. Our current Matryoshka Haus interns had to explain this fact to their rather excited American families. What can I say, we’re eccentric English people!

Six years ago, a group of people who were beginning to become very good friends began chatting about a curious trip to France to work on a house. I vividly recall an evening at Marie’s (the best Thai food in London, found on Lower Marsh) where Shannon encouraged me to come along. I believe her words were something like: “Come to France! There’ll be wine! A swimming pool! Lots of great food! It’ll be fun!”

In her defence, she was not wrong. She just left out the hours of back-breaking work that would take place before we had a moment to jump into the pool or open a bottle of red! Anyway, as long-term readers of this blog will know well, by the end of that trip I was fully committed to the project that was now known as Chateau Duffy and was on my way to developing a wide range of DIY skills.

Chateau Duffy in August 2011 before any work began.

This month marks Chateau Duffy trip number twelve. We’ll be gathering together another motley crew of Brits & Americans with a side order of baffled French locals. (When we’re in St Denis-des-Murs it’s like the circus has come to town.)

Across eleven trips, 62 adults have worked on the site. 27 of them have even been willing to come back. Thanks to their combined efforts, in six years we have:

  • Taken down the barn’s roof.
  • Rebuilt the barn’s beams; boarded the roof; waterproofed it & then put the tiles back.
  • Pointed walls.
  • Pointed more walls.
  • Demolished a hay loft.
  • Dug up and concreted the barn’s floor.
  • Pointed walls (again).
  • Dug up and concreted the house’s floor.
  • More pointing.
  • Built a mezzanine in the barn.
  • A bit more pointing.
  • Built another mezzanine & created frames for two bathrooms.
  • Added a staircase to the barn.
  • Slurried walls (though we get local Englishman Will to do this.)
  • Dug out and installed a septic tank.
  • Mortared the internal walls in the barn.
  • Painted window & door frames.
  • Installed (some) windows and doors.
  • Re-tiled the house roof (with some help from Romanians).
  • Connected the water supply to the bathrooms.
  • Plaster-boarded barn ceiling.
  • Installed toilets & shower trays.
  • Dug out trenches for laying pipes.
  • Tiled the downstairs bathroom.
  • Plastered barn’s ceiling.
  • Pointed some more (mostly inside).
  • Tiled upstairs bathroom.
  • Blocked in downstairs bathroom.

You’ll notice some recurring themes… My goodness pointing is a never-ending task! Despite that looking like an epic list, we’re still not done. Sure, you can use a toilet and potentially have a shower but you can’t yet cook a meal. But all that could change by the end of July!

I feel like this photo from April’s trip doesn’t quite do our work justice – you can’t see the inside and the endless pointing efforts are less obvious from a distance. Despite still being a bit of a way off finishing, the amount that’s been achieved in a little over 12 weeks is pretty impressive. Our local builder friend even suggested that we’d got more done in three months spread over 6 years than a team might have managed in 12 consecutive weeks. (Although I’d be inclined to suggest that it’s largely French bureaucracy that would hold things up!

My 11 weeks of work (yep, I’ve only missed one trip – one that clashed with my MA deadline) now equate to 22 weeks of being able to use the place when it’s done. I’m not sure it’ll be quite be the same without needing to mix mortar…

Should you find yourself at a loose end for the last week of July, there’s still time to book!

A tale of three cakes…

If you’ve read my most recent post, this will be quite a contrast. I don’t apologise for this. I feel it’s high time that I got back into my more ridiculous blogging style of yore, if only to raise the mood a little…

Many years ago, when I worked in a workplace that had run a very successful and competitive cake-based competition for several months, a dear colleague presented me with a copy of Mary Berry’s ‘Foolproof Cakes’ on my birthday. The inside page bears the inscription: “Happy birthday Liz! Thought this might help your quest to become CMS cake queen!”

I won my round of the office bake off, but I can’t remember if the recipe I used was from that particular volume. [It was a Victoria Sponge with a swirl of raspberry coolis in the lower layer, with fresh cream & raspberries in the middle.] In fact, it’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve realised that this volume is effectively a bible for the home baker – anyone who’s watched Mary Berry in action on GBBO knows that she is the fount of all knowledge when it comes to cake, and so far, she’s yet to let me down…

Welcome Home Serenna

Baby Serenna’s welcome home cake – a Berry Victoria Sponge turned lemon drizzle… 

Watching a lot of Mary Berry baking shows has provided me with an encyclopaedia of cake based knowledge, much of which I haven’t put into practice. But I do whip it out in conversation every so often, which can result in me having a better reputation for my baking than might otherwise be deserved – although, when the chips are down, I can generally bake a pretty good cake.

I can only imagine that it was a conversation along these lines, around a table with much vin rouge at Chateau Duffy this Easter, that resulted in my friend Helen making a request. Helen lives in St Denis, and was bemoaning the lack of English cakes locally – the kind that in Britain, you could pick up from a bake sale or local WI stall or even a local bakery. Yes, France does choux very well, but sponge? Not so much. Add to the mix the fact that Helen’s oven is a range (which Mary Berry has taught me does not do temperature consistency very well), and it becomes tricky for her to bake them herself. So, apparently, I offered to bring her a cake the next time I visited – and promptly completely forgot all about it.

Cue a Facebook comment 36 hours before I was due to depart for June’s trip, which had me scurrying to the Berry Bible. Apparently I hadn’t promised any old cake, I’d specifically offered a coffee & walnut one – which is odd, as it’s a cake I detest on account of my dislike for coffee. The Berry Bible’s only coffee based recipe was in fact a cappuccino cake: chocolate sponge with a coffee & fresh cream filling. The latter wasn’t going to be practical for a full day’s journey on strike-ridden French trains, but a simple coffee buttercream could suffice. There was a tin into which it would neatly fit, and my suitcase had room, so we were good to go – the only risk being my getting stranded somewhere on a train to nowhere and needing to use the cake as leverage to reach Limoges…

The cake caused a little consternation on Facebook. Was I really intending to travel all the way from Highbury, via Eurostar, an hour’s walk in Parisian rain, an SNCF train and then car to St Denis?? Yep. Did I think it would make it intact? Well, if it did, it would be a bonus!

Incredibly, it was pretty much fine:

Upon presentation of the cake, I was given a pair of sandwich tins and I trotted off having promised to make another one in our gite’s decent looking oven over the course of the next 8 days. Inevitably, I got distracted by fun, mud and more fun, until it was our last whole day and I realised I still had cake to make. Oh, and it was someone on the trip’s birthday, so obviously a cake was needed for him too.

Mary Berry has not made any baking shows about the challenges of making cakes in foreign countries. There was very little in my store of baking knowledge relating to important things like the ratio of baking powder needed for French flour. And this, most probably, is where my downfall arose…

I set off to make two Victoria Sponges. A cake I can make confidently and quickly – I had everything I needed (apart from the moment when I realised I’d forgotten the baking powder and then had to make an emergency trip out for more). I used the ratio of baking powder needed for our plain flour in the UK and put the first two layers in the oven where they rose, and went golden…and then sank. Horribly. I was peeved, but perhaps someone had opened the door to peek in & let in cold air? I’d have another go with the next cake. But the same thing happened again.

The lovely Helen took a look at what I’d produced and, having made the rather damming comment that “I could have made cakes that look like that in my oven!”, proceeded to suggest that I just pile all four cakes together in an attempt to make a semi decent birthday cake. She even suggested she try and find M&Ms to fill the holes between the layers – y’know, to try and make the dents look intentional…

In the end, I hid myself in a quiet corner of the gite and got to work with a jar of jam, a box of icing sugar, some butter and a hand-mixer. Buttercream was made, and a first attempt was made to make something that looked halfway presentable as a birthday cake. This was where that got me:

Disastrous Cake

This, my friends, is not something that deserves to have Mary Berry’s name anywhere near it! In fact, it ranks as probably the worst cake I have created since I was 9 years old. Brilliantly, by this point in the day, I was actually quite relaxed about the whole thing. [Previously, I have been known to throw cake disasters onto the floor and stamp on them.] In fact, it was with laughter that I drew a couple of people into my hideaway to get their response – which was effectively gales of laughter.


The trench – pre pipe laying.

With only a minimal quantity of icing sugar left, covering the whole thing in frosting was not an option, but when someone suggested that the whole in the middle was reminiscent of the trench we’d been digging on site, I was seized with inspiration. Cut a trench across the top, use jam as mud, turn colourful paper straws into pipe conduits, and use the offcuts as piles of rock and voila! A Chateau Duffy themed birthday cake:

Chateau Duffy birthday cake

The spoons would be spades, obviously…

If ever there was a cake that could possibly be something akin to a GBBO showstopper, this was it – but in true Chateau Duffy style, it was somewhat ramshackle; things had escalated slightly out of control; and nothing had really gone quite to plan. Still, served in semi-darkness with a bunch of candles on top of it, it served its purpose. And, in the words of a 7 year old present: “Liz, this cake is really tasty” – so at least it was edible, which is the most important thing.

The lesson learned from this experience? Do not rest on one’s baking laurels. A different oven is a bad enough risk, let alone a different country, complete with language barrier and foreign flour. There really is only so far Mary Berry can get you.

Septic spanking

It was a happy day, nearly a year ago, when a crew of innuendo loving Brits & Americans discovered that the French acronym for the approval process for septic tanks was SPANC. Pronounced “spank”, obviously. As if a septic tank didn’t already have enough potential for toilet humour…

Chateau Duffy Aug 2014Chateau Duffy at the end of the August 2014 trip.

Last week Chateau Duffy VII took place and the primary aim was to get the approval of “the SPANC man” for the chateau’s septic system. The groundwork for this had been laid – or rather, dug up – by our team’s local member, who lives just a few metres up the road. His wife’s Facebook posts chronicled the digging of a hole of such proportions that seemingly everyone in the region knew about it.

Chateau Duffy April 2015Upon our return in April 2015 (after the advance party had already been at work, plus Will’s efforts). 

“Mike’s hole” (as it inevitably became known, once our long-suffering plumber took up residence at its bottom) was the primary focus of the trip. It couldn’t have been anything but that, given that it basically took up the whole of the site! Most of us were involved in work on/in it at some point – even our smallest team member helped add gravel to it at one point.

Mike & the SPANC man dans le holeOnly in France would a septic tank inspector turn up in a white hoodie.

The hole brought with it many trials and tribulations. It turned out very few of us had any real idea of what a septic tank involved, and that the SPANC man had some very specific ideas about what was needed! Much joy was exhibited on Wednesday afternoon when he made his third visit and finally proclaimed it acceptable.

Mini ForemanA mini foreman onsite.

In the mean time, progress was being made inside. While we were away, Will had slurried the back wall of the barn. In the couple of days the ‘professionals’ had on site prior to the amateurs getting involved, they put in stairs – fancy, Duffy designed stairs no less! As the hole took shape, last summer’s second mezzanine was completed and floored. Those of us in “Team Caz” (we had huddles, a motivational song & an over-developed sense of team pride) took charge of mortaring. Internal walls were topped with cement smoothed level enough for a coffee cup to sit upon (our very specific brief). The local residents had a rude awakening at 9.30am on a holiday as the sound of a cement mixer being towed down a hill disturbed an otherwise peaceful morning!

Lindsay demonstrates the stairsl’escalier!

By the end of the week, we were priming windows (to be installed at a later date) as the hole was filled in and levelled over. It’s almost as if the end of the project is in sight! (Although there’s still a huge amount to be done in the house, and quite a lot more work needed in the barn.) On our day off we explored Lac de Vasiviére – a lake with an island, beaches, art gallery, sculptures and a submarine – continuing the process of discovering places in the region that we can explore once we’re visiting St Denis des Murs for actual holidays, rather than building work. (Apparently, not everyone considers a site of mass genocide an attractive prospect for holiday activities…)

At the lake

Originally, we’d planned to only make one trip to the Chateau this year, but I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to build upon the momentum we’ve gathered this month. Those primed windows are currently laid out in the barn’s loft practically begging to have colour painted upon them. There are doors ready to be primed, painted and installed. There’s a ton of small, comparatively quick jobs in the barn that could be done in the space of a week. So, if you’re interested in joining in the adventure, keep an eye on

Also, if you want to see some truly beautiful photos from the week, my pal Phil has documented the trip in his rather wonderful photographic style on his blog. I particularly liked this shot of the window painting day:

Liz Reflected What can I say? There’s reflection & a cross! 

Perhaps we won’t return until next Easter, but hopefully, now that the hole’s been filled in and we’ve scattered grass & wild flower seeds across the ground, the inhabitants of St Denis won’t consider the site to be as much of an eyesore as it has been over the last couple of months!

Chateau Duffy end of the tripChateau Duffy, end of trip VII.

Construction and confection

Cake making is something I know a fair amount about. Not a lot. Not in comparison with Berry or Hollywood, but I have a reasonable grasp of the subject. Enough to use it for illustrative purposes in every day life…

…well, when I say ‘every day life’, I mean life on a construction site. Specifically, the small patch of French land a group of dysfunctional wannabe builders like to refer to as Chateau Duffy.

I’ve made the analogy before, but I think only in retrospect. On this trip, it genuinely became the logical way for me to pass on the knowledge I’d been given regarding cement mixing in a cement mixer.

The beauty of cake making is that it’s a shared knowledge. Most people understand the principles of icing, mixing in dry ingredients, ensuring everything is combined etc – thanking you GBBO. Will, a professional builder, taught me everything I needed to know about cement mixing (which I handily filmed on my phone for future reference – do shout if you have pointing needs), but it was then up to me to ensure that anyone the task was delegated to knew the ropes too. And this was where the universal language of cake making proved its worth…

For a start, there’s not a lot of difference between a cement mixer and a Kenwood. Well, aside from the 63.5 litre difference in mix capacity. And the fact that one requires you to shovel the ingredients into it, while the other needs only a delicate spoon or a shaking of packet. Plus the important issue of cement mix not being edible (it really, really isn’t – trust me). Also, unless you have an allergy to icing sugar, I don’t think you’d need to wear a face mask to prevent the inhalation of dangerous components. But there are similarities, trust me!


You need to regularly pause the machine in order to scrape the dry ingredients away from the sides of the bowl and into the wet mix. As is the case with icing, it’s important to not add too much water. Doing it gradually, in between the addition of bucketfuls of sand, helps ensure that the mixture isn’t overly wet. As in the world of baking, working with overly wet cement is a flipping nightmare – won’t stay where it’s meant to, runs off your implements, dribbles down the sides. Dreadful calamity. You also have to make sure the bowl’s at the right angle so that the batter/cement doesn’t splatter the kitchen or your face. Like this: 

Splattered FaceAs with kitchen mixers, it can be tricky to clean a cement mixer. Ever tried to remove firmly set royal icing from the blades of a mixer? Dried cement is very similar in consistency and adherence. The difference? I’m pretty sure Mary Berry would throttle me if I attempted to clean a Kenwood using large rocks. (Although, it is an interesting principle – that the action of the rocks hitting the bowl, with some water added, helps to break down the dried on stuff. I am wondering what could be used in a domestic context…) Oh, and as with washing up a mixer, beware splatters – again!

Splattered. Again. The front of my t-shirt reads ‘time to play dirt or tan’ – it’s my 2014 Chateau Duffy themed shirt – and was a very apt choice for that day! 

However, do you know where baking analogies fall down? When you’re trying to educate teenage boys in the ways of cement mixing.

Men MixingAs observed from atop of a scaffold. 

And the point of all this cement? Pointing. Obviously.

We did good. In fact, we did very good. What had taken our builder friend Will a couple of weeks to do on a similar project took us about three days. It helps when you have an enthusiastic team! We’ve done some pointing before on previous trips, but some of it wasn’t quite up to scratch and had to be gone over; other parts hadn’t been touched at all. By the day we left, the whole of the front of the house is now re-pointed (the less said about the back, the better) and honestly, it looks like somewhere you might actually want to live!


Chateau Duffy 2007Very much ‘before’. This was 4 years before our first trip.


Re-pointed, 2014Doesn’t it look lovely? (Just imagine that dismantled scaffold rig isn’t there. And that the window was back to being a window. And you didn’t need to wear a hard hat indoors…)

It should also be mentioned that a second mezzanine level has (partly) been constructed inside the house and the level that was built last year now has permanent support. Plus, the bathrooms have started to take shape, which is a massive deal. All of a sudden there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel!

Departing Chateau Duffy, 2014Departing Chateau Duffy. [NB: that un-pointed bit at the top of the house is deliberate – there’s going to be a window there too.] 

Progress at Chateau Duffy

The blogging silence of late was the result of trip number 5 to the fabulous Chateau Duffy – the building site on which I’ve learned many surprising skills – not least my love of and ability to build scaffolding. I have returned with my 2014 tan kicked off, a whole host of bruises and a renewed appreciation of French cuisine.

I’m simultaneously blogging about the trip here and on the Matryoshka Haus blog, so I may do some duplicate entries. But, for those of you who are mystified as to why I’d spend five weeks (so far) of my life renovating a French house, here’s a brief explanation and a demonstration of our progress so far.

Chateau Duffy belongs to Chris Duffy (of Duffy London furniture – check out his amazing swing table) – can you see how the name came about?? We’re a creative bunch! At one point he was thinking of selling the property because things hadn’t worked out, but having shared its story with the legendary Shannon ‘vortex’ Hopkins, she concocted a plan to renovate it through community. Cue builders and an architect from Texas getting involved and various Londoners lured to France with a promise of great food and endless wine. I naively said yes, with very little clue as to what I’d got myself into – my family wondered what on earth I could offer to a building project!

Turns out I bring a lot to the table. Strength, fearless (well, semi-fearless) scaling of scaffolding rigs, a willingness to get stuck into most things, a persistence in demonstrating that women *do* have a place on the building… I love scaffolding. I love that it terrifies me at moments. I love that I can see the result of my work. I love that, this year, we had a whole rig built solely by women. I love that at the end of the day, my body aches – but that at the end of the week, I can see the massive impact this group of people has had upon the site.

Now that we’ve completed trip number 5, there’s a huge amount of progress to reflect upon – especially when you compare it with where we started. Chateau Duffy has come a long way since our first venture in August 2011…

Chateau Duffy 2007The Chateau before it acquired its name – the earliest photo I’ve found, from when it was on sale in 2007.

The first three trips centred around the roof of the barn (on the right). See that dip on the far right of the ridgeline? Not a good look for a roof. So, all the tiles had to come down (to be saved for later) – that was the whole of the first trip and a bit of the second. Then the ridge needed replacing, along with any beams that were rotten. That, as well as the lining of the roof, completed trip number two – as this collage demonstrated:

April 2012 - Roof DevelopmentRoof progress, April 2012.

With the roof safely refurbished, summer 2012 was all about the tiling. On a roof in direct sunlight. In August. You can imagine what the heat was like!

Developing roof, Aug 2012August 2012

The roof’s probably the most dramatic transformation. Our last two trips involved pouring concrete floors, which make a very visible difference to the earth and rocks that was inside the building, but it’s a bit harder to demonstrate with just photos. But, in creating the floor of the barn, big changes had to happen. A hay loft had to come down and the walls of the chicken coop below it had to be demolished. On this trip, the transformation of this space from grotty, smelly animal pen to beautiful new bathroom, kitchen and bedroom began.

CD Barn developmentTransformation in progress.

How good does the new mezzanine look??

Mezzanine, April 2014

I could also talk about pointing, but I won’t. It’s been a long, painful, circular process that’s continued while the roof’s been fixed, and while floors have been poured. We may now be at a point where all the old cement has been chipped away by scores of dedicated workers, and is ready to be filled by a willing local.

This trip marked a transition in the project, I think. We moved away from destroying things and are now in the world of creating. Of making Carl’s plans for the buildings come to life. As the mezzanine went up, I was reminded of the first time I met Carl, on a hot August day in 2011. I had been sweeping away dirt, cobwebs and snake skins while he talked over his plans with Duffy. True, the plans have had many incarnations since then – but as of last week, we have begun to see them in reality. It’s terribly rewarding and makes it actually seem possible that we WILL finish, one day…

Chateau Duffy, April 26thUntil next time, dear Chateau.